Verstappen shows more similarities to Senna as he passes F1 milestone


Max Verstappen stepped onto an F1 podium for the 81st time in Baku, surpassing Ayrton Senna's tally of 80. But there's a lot more that links the Red Bull driver with the three-time world champion, writes Matt Bishop

Max Verstappen on Azerbaijan GP podium in 2023

Verstappen's 81st podium appearance at 2023 Azerbaijan GP

Red Bull

On the 29th anniversary of the death of Roland Ratzenberger, the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix ended in dangerous farce, as Esteban Ocon drove his Alpine A523 into a pitlane that was thronged with people who should never have been allowed to be there while a race was still live. The row carried on into the next day, the 29th anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna, and, although the congruence of the dates was coincidental, it served to make the failure of those whose role it is to optimise the safety of the sport we love all the more objectionable.

We should not allow such deplorable aberrations to occlude the excellence of Checo Perez’s fine victory, however, for he is becoming something of a street circuit specialist, all the more so when tyre management is key, as it was in Baku on Sunday. He has triumphed on the narrow streets of the city before (2021), at Monaco and in Singapore the following year, and in Jeddah six weeks ago. He has won five times as Max Verstappen’s team-mate — a total dwarfed by Verstappen’s astonishing tally of 27 victories in the same period — but the role of ‘the guy in the other car’ has always been a tricky one at Red Bull. Overall, Perez is doing the job pretty well.

Ayrton Senna raises arm of Alain Prost on podium after 1993 Australian Grand Prix

Senna makes peace with Prost on his 80th and final podium appearance at the 1993 Australian GP

Jean-Marc Loubat/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

On Sunday, Verstappen notched up his 81st podium in Formula 1, passing Senna’s total of 80, which Ayrton compiled in nine fewer grands prix (158 against 167). Some commentators opined that Max was having something of a ’mare in Azerbaijan this year, but that is an exaggeration. He was second in main qualifying, third in the sprint shootout, third in the sprint, and second in the main race, and he still leads the drivers’ world championship standings.

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Moreover, viewing Formula 1 through the prism of the 2023 season, Verstappen reminds me of Senna in many ways, and Lewis Hamilton of Alain Prost. For many years Hamilton, like Prost, was universally hailed as the best driver in the world, and, despite his advancing years (he is 38), he could stake a robust claim to that ranking still, as could Fernando Alonso, who is almost four years Hamilton’s senior. But, as Senna was throughout a Formula 1 career that never allowed him to grow old, Verstappen is surely now the fastest driver in the world, and he may also be the best.

In the wet Senna was peerless, and so on occasion has Verstappen been. If Senna’s opening race lap at Donington in 1993 was extraordinary mastery of a damp track, then his maiden Formula 1 victory, in a downpour at Estoril eight years before that, was perhaps an even greater demonstration of how to manhandle a race car in the wet. Not only a race car, mind, but a jitterbugging beast of a race car, weighing just 540kg, powered by a peaky turbocharged engine good for 800bhp at 12,500rpm, its five-speed manual gearbox controlled entirely by its driver’s calloused right hand. At Interlagos in 2016 Verstappen’s Red Bull RB12 was equipped with incomparably more and better driver aids than was Senna’s Lotus 97T at Estoril in 1985, but the young Dutchman’s performance that rainy day ranks with the young Brazilian’s 31 years previously, for, although Verstappen finished only third, the aplomb with which he carved his way through the field to that position from near the back, making up 11 places in just 16 laps, was as good as anything I, for one, have ever seen.

Ayrton Senna on his way to his first F1 win at Estoril in 1985

Senna at Estoril in '85

Red Bull of Max Verstappen in front of cloud of spray at we 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix

Verstappen makes waves at Interlagos, 2016

The similarities with Senna do not end there, either. Seeing footage of him tearing a strip off George Russell in the Baku pit lane after the two had locked horns on the opening lap of Saturday’s sprint reminded me of Senna’s altercation with Eddie Irvine at Suzuka 30 years ago. For Senna, Irvine was ‘a f***ing idiot’; for Verstappen, Russell was ‘a d***head’. Most students of lexical profanity would agree that the two terms are synonyms. Senna attempted fisticuffs, which Verstappen did not, but if looks could kill…

The next day, as I say, Verstappen beat Senna’s total of Formula 1 podium finishes (81 against 80). Ayrton won 41 Grands Prix – four more than Max’s current total of 37. Verstappen will surely surpass Senna by that rubric this season. It would be fitting, and is entirely possible, that he should score his 42nd grand prix victory at the Red Bull Ring on 2 July. Remember where you read it first.

2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

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